If you are new to our blogs let us introduce ourselves. If not welcome back! My husband and I are some 50’ish year olds who love to write and travel! Typically our adventures involve hiking and/or cycling through countries such as Spain, Morocco, Portugal and France. We are budget nomads who like to explore places off the beaten path. This time however, we’ve been offered a unique opportunity to cruise through Russia on a Uniworld river boat. Allan’s mother had wanted to go to Russia for years and offered to take us, Allan’s brother and his wife. This will be quite a different experience from our usual travels. So please join us as we coauthor our voyage through Russia and a few of the Baltic countries!
We liked Russia. We are both in our 50’s so we grew up with the “godless-evil empire” of the 1960’s Soviet Union memory. That was over a generation ago. In a past trip we were in Czech Republic having a drink at a hotel bar in Prague. The bar tender was relating how that their communist days were long over and something his parents talked about. Russia has transformed even more so. I expected frowns, ill fitting suits and crappy cars with plain grey buildings. Not so. Moscow felt and looked very European and possibly more American in the cars they drove such as big SUV’s from Toyota, Land Rover, Nissan and even Ford.
We also enjoyed the exploration of Russia via river boat. Our cruise line made life easy with planned excursions, food and transportation. We were able to see many important sites without the fear of getting lost. Also history classes and Russian language classes were available on our boat to enrich our experience.
Our travel also gained us a new felt sorrow for the many souls lost and significant places destroyed in Russia from war or over religion. Of course like any organized tour you are limited to the groups itinerary and we couldn’t help but feel sheltered. I personally missed the travel experience one gets when your hoofing it without the luxury of hand holding. I missed not being able to truly connect with the people or culture.
As we moved onward to to Finland and Sweden, without the confines now of an organized tour, we once again felt a since of freedom. These countries as well were equally breathtaking. Our accommodations in these countries were both located in their historic downtowns of Helsinki and Stockholm . There was so much to see and yet so much left unseen. We look forward to a revisit of this area on another travel adventure.
Russian Visa…. Don’t leave home without it! Many countries require a visa in addition to a passport. Russia is no exception. To make your life easier start early and review any updated requirements ….. because Russian visas are a bit challenging.
First compose a list of all the items required for submission to the Russian consulate. Some of these items include current passport photo, passport, a letter of intention and invitation letter from hotel and/ or cruise ship. If you are going to be on a cruise the entire visit, with no excursions on your own, you do not need a visa.
Next before attempting to fill out your visa application, take the time to gather all your needed information. I cannot emphasize this more. You will need to have names, addresses, phone numbers and dates of all colleges attended. Also you will need to provide a list of all your previous employers including addresses, phone numbers, dates employed in addition to your supervisors surname. If this doesn’t make your hair fall out, it will also inquire on all the countries you’ve visited in the last eleven years including the days you entered and left each one. This proved challenging for us since my husband and I have traveled a lot… often walking or biking from one country to another. Remember you will only have 20 minutes to fill out the form on line so don’t forget your application number and password.
Lastly if you’ve made it this far congratulation! If not try a visa concierge service. For an additional fee they will do most of the work for you.
After a smooth flight from LAX we arrived in Moscow on time. We then quickly maneuvered through passport control without “interrogation ” and onto customs. With nothing to declare we were rapidly ushered through. After retrieving our “intact ” luggage we then exited to a taxi stand located within the Moscow airport. Here we were met by well dressed men in suits who were not members of the KGB. A gentleman holding a taxi sign quickly took our suitcase and walked us to a waiting car. The rates were displayed and we paid them prior to departure. The whole encounter was quick and professional. The time required to get to our hotel was about an hour at a cost of 8600 rubles or approximately 131 dollars. So far, we have found this forgoing encounter to be typical of most of our experiences here in Moscow.
When we pulled up to the hotel our first thought was “wow!”. It was big, old and very nice having recently been remodeled. The Radisson Royal is right on the river. There is also a metal detector and two armed guards at the front door as well as a few security guys stationed throughout the vast lobby and reception area.
It had all the fancy shops, a lot of marble and of course, a Rolls Royce dealership inside the hotel. We checked in, took a shower and crashed into a coma after our long journey.
The breakfast was fantastic and offered several foods that we were unfamiliar with. Marla and I both went with omelettes and the usual Western foods also nibbling on some new treats.
After breakfast we strolled along the river front encountering a light rain and took a few photos. A red double decker tour bus had parked near the hotel and we needed no further prompting, we took it. The price was 700 rubles each or around $10.00. The Russian prices are actually quite nice, like our fancy hotel on a vagabond budget, and after the initial sticker shock and subsequent conversion, not bad at all.
The City Tour bus was like so many we have taken in Europe with English speaking guides and narration in English provided through ear phones. Great to sit, listen and look on a day of jet lag. Oddly we both felt good and lag-free for the entire day.
The bus took us to our goal of Red Square. Why is it called Red? The Word red in Russian also means beautiful.
All the postcard monuments are within easy walking distance which was nice given my lame foot. There was St. Basil’s cathedral, the Kremlin wall, the GUM shopping center and a massive children’s book festival in progress in Red Square.
The weather held out and we had some ice cream before strolling through the shopping center. GUM is very ornate, very high end and very big. It has about 200 boutiques and was built in the late 19th century. It consists of several halls with high arched glass ceilings and marbled terraces. We didn’t spend a a kopek there.
The bus ride back through the city offered impressive views.
Our first impression was that Moscow is nice. Many of the buildings are similar to parts of Paris and New York. The cars here were all German, Japanese and American made. The people are fashionably dressed and polite.
That night we were to meet the rest of our family for dinner at the Cafe Pushkin and grabbed a taxi to get there. My brother, his wife and my mother with her friend were all there for dinner. The dinner was fantastic and the ambiance was well suited. Two of our desserts featured fire and an expert presentation.
After returning back to the hotel we took a tour of the top of the hotel that had been recommended. After 3 elevator rides and some stairs we were rewarded with a 360 degree view of the city at night. It was breath taking, and not for the faint of heart.
We were fortunate enough to book a room at one of Moscow’s Seven Sisters. The Sisters are a group of seven similar high rise buildings built in different areas of the city. The towers were constructed on the orders of Jozef Stalin for the glorification of the Soviet State after WWll . Muscovites call them Vysotki or Stalinskie Vysotki (Russian: Сталинские высотки), meaning “(Stalin’s) high-rises” (or “Stalinist skyscrapers”). Originally there were suppose to be eight . Our hotel which was formerly known as the Ukraina building is now the Royal Raddison. Raddison purchased this sister building in 2004 and refurbished the rooms to create a 5 star resort.
Like anywhere in the world, Russian weather can be unpredictable. We felt pleased that we had brought enough layers to stay warm with this cold rainy Russian summer. Today the temperature was around 50 degrees and was expected to drop within the coming days. This was a perfect day to sleep in, eat breakfast and board our sweet river ride…. aka Uniworlds river boat the Victoria.
River boats will dock in varying locations, so finding the location of your boat isn’t always easy. This became most apparent after providing the address of the ships location to our taxi driver. He first drove us to what appeared to be an abandoned building. Allan reminded the driver that it was a” boats docking address”. He seemed to understand and reset his GPS, after which he began to back up on the freeway. Soon we turned into a park where we reached a guarded road with a barricade. The security then waved us through after stating we were here for the River Boat Victoria. Shortly thereafter we reached the ship which also was barricaded off. Evidently we were the first guests to arrive!
The Victoria river boat is nice and was recently refurbished. The steps between floors are smallish though, but there is an elevator. The cabin suites were also compact but arranged in such a way as to give you maximum efficiency. Plenty of space underneath the beds to stow our lugage was a good touch. We quickly acclimated to our accommodation while unpacking all our worldly belongings and pondering over what the upcoming weeks would bring.
Traveling has provided us with unexpected adventures. Hmmm …. Expect the unexpected on Russia’s Volga River?
Today we signed up for the Red Square tour. This tour was by bus and we crawled through the city in a Moscow traffic jam. It was much more congested than Sunday when we hopped on the big red bus for a city tour. It took 90 minutes to get to the Red Square on this morning the first time, and another 3 hours until we got there a second time.
After arriving in Red Square We merged back into Moscow morning traffic and grid lock. It was the kind where only one car per traffic signal was getting through as we clawed our way towards our first stop the Novodevich’ye cemetery. The Novodevich’ye cemetery is the Who’s Who of the Russian dead. The plots are not very big in size so the tombstones over compensate for that. The tombstones are essentially sculptures depicting the achievements and life of the Russian elite. There were past presidents, generals, artists, poets, builders of aircraft and actors side by side. The rain was light and it was chilly enough for us native Southern Californians to wear gloves and scarves. Our guide, who sounded like Borat, guilt tripped us into not using the bathrooms and after 45 minutes we boarded the bus.
This city tour not only included the cemetery but also free time in Red Square. We were to return to Red Square by 1:00pm in order to have 90 minutes to eat and shop. The bus was to tour out into the city before returning to Red Square. We tried to make a loop but ended up making a U Turn because the traffic was so bad. Our Guide “Borat” had used up all his material and was now winging it. We were easily lulled into a slumber with the droning of every factoid he could muster. We did not make it back to Red Square until 2:00 which gave us only 30 minutes of free time. We unanimously voted to first find a restroom and then wolf down a sandwich at GUM, before meeting to the Equestrian statue of Marshal Georgy Zhukov in Manege Square.
Our next adventure was that of the Moscow subway. Their metro is very fancy with statues, mosaics and elaborate marble work. At the Zhukov statue we put on our headsets to hear our guide. After this mass confusion ensued for the rest of the tour. There were many senior citizens who couldn’t hear well or understand the often repeated instructions. Everyone was told to reset their headsets to synchronize with the guide by holding two buttons down on their receivers for 4 seconds. That was easy and we instantly heard the guide through the headsets. Great, let’s go! Eh, not so fast. Several seniors had trouble resetting the headsets and had trouble hearing or understanding the instructions. It took another 20 minutes of fumbling around before we left, but with all the setting and resetting of headsets our guide’s transmissions were cutting in and out making it difficult to understand fully. She repeated herself frequently enough to get the gist of it however the group was getting surly at times. The problem seemed to be the tour gude’s headset. Ha! Then after 30 minutes, conspiratorial looks between the inmates had developed. People were smirking and starting to laugh, which made it worse I suppose for the subway challenged.
Next our tour involved getting on/off the subway three times. Our guide first instructed us to get off in two stops and spread out among two cars. It was a senior citizen kindergarten outing and like herding cats, we could hardly contain our laughter. Despite the recipe for losing a member of our tour, the cruise ship tour guides did a wonder job of gathering us to the safety above. Thankfully the last stop was the end of the line
Chilly weather was expected with our visit to Moscow’s Kremlin. So after suiting up with several layers of clothing we ambled out to our waiting bus. After the previous days experience with traffic we were prepared for the worse, but in fact the traffic was quite light. We made good time and arrived at our destination early. Our tour group was then quickly herded off the bus and ushered through security.
We made our way through the Kremlin grounds and followed our guide to our first stop the Armory, which is now a museum and part of the Grand Kremlin Palace. After depositing our bags and jackets in the cloak room we entered the Armory chamber to view an interesting collection of items dating from the 4th to the early 20th century. It’s an eclectic array of items such as medieval Russian embroidery, weapons and carriages of the Russian Monarchy. Elaborate Russian gowns of the hierarchy were also prominently displayed which included bejeweled ceremonial crowns of Russian Tzars.
After leaving the Armory we walked to the Dormition Cathedral located in the central square of the Kremlin or “Cathedral Square”. Dormition Cathedral is where events such as the choosing of the heads of churches to the coronations of the Tzars took place, but now is another museum on the Kremlin grounds. Inside the Cathedral the walls and columns are painted with beautiful religious frescoes that showed different states of disrepair. Unfortunately photography was not allowed.
It felt odd walking around the Kremlin in this post Stalin/ Cold War era. The relationship between our two countries had been strained at best. Putin is president of the Soviet Union now and is said to be very popular according to our Russian seminars on the boat. It’s hard, especially as a tourist, to decipher reality from propaganda or somewhere in between. History or some version of it always writes itself.
The bus arrived at 9:30 and off we went into Moscow morning traffic. The traffic was initially slow before mercifully loosening the noose to let us into the city. We also were fortunate to park close to Lover’s Bridge with only some light sprinkles. Of rain as we walked to the Tretyakov art gallery.
Our tour guy Sergy, who was amusing and not as hyper vocal as Borat was on the previous tour. He spoke about Peval Tretyakov who was a private art collector and founded the museum in 1871. He said that Tretyakov would not let his wife buy shoes so he could instead buy art.
My mom had some difficulty descending the two flights of stairs yet thankfully the steps were not high in rise. The group checked their coats in, used the wash room and off we went. The halls were not overly big and had a good selection of art. Babushkas were stationed in each hall to observe the patrons which allowed the art to be viewed very close up without barriers. You could get literally get nose-to-nose with the art unlike European and Western art museums. This allowed you see the detail and the brush strokes from the artist. The added close up viewing was a real bonus.
There were plenty of benches and chairs to rest on and I used many with my sore foot causing me grief.
The large paintings were typically position at the end of each hall. At the end of this tour were the icons or religious art. I was impressed at how well preserved the art was overall. Many early art works suffered from primitive restoration efforts. Many were simply repainted over the years and had several coats of paint giving them a flat look without the depth and detail of the original. Modern restoration had worked wonders on these icon works of art. Most of the icons were painted on wood and they were displayed that you could really get up close and personal.
The tour was about 90 minutes and included visits to the Church of Saint Dmitry on the Blood. Saint Dmitry’s walls were painted with frescoes depicting religious stories as well as events in the ancient town of Uglich. One of the most famous of these paintings depict the death of Dmitry Ivanovich in 1591, who was the son of Ivan the Terrible. The Story goes that the 10 year old boy was found dead with his throat cut in the palace courtyard. A piece of the cathedrals bell, which was used to alert the news of his death, was removed and exiled to Siberia. Dmitry being the last heir to the throne, precipitated the political crisis which was known as “The time of troubles”.
We also visited the the Transfiguration Cathedral and the Uglich Kremlin where we sat for a men’s acappella performance.
After our musical entertainment, we ditched our group in search of treasures. So with the town of Uglich once being known for its now closed Chaika watch manufacturing plant, we sought out watch shops. We saw several of these shops close to our dock and proceeded to choose one. Allan quickly had his eye on the prize…. A very cool Russian watch with a KGB insignia. Without loss of life and after plowing through a group of tourists, we finally were able to purchase this very special item!
During our trip to Yaroslavl we visited the Eternal Flame memorial. The memorial is dedicated to the Russian men and women who served in the Great Patriot war otherwise known as WWll. This Second World War memorial was opened in 1968 and is made up of two large granite stones. The first stone has an engraving of a man representing the soldiers who served at the front. The second stone has an engraving of a woman representing the labor effort. Between these two granite structures lies the eternal flame. While standing at the memorial you can’t help but get this sobering since of warfare. Whether your a citizen, allie or enemy there will always remain this inexplicable waste of human life.
Looking beyond the memorial you can see the rebuilt Assumption (Dormition) Cathedral. The original cathedral was built in 1215 and blown up in 1937 during the Stalin era. During this period the soviets destroyed thousands of churches in an effort to promote atheism. This new church was completed at a cost of 20 million euro with the help of a private donor. The reconstructed cathedral was finished in 2010 which coincided with Yaroslavs 1,000 year anniversary.
After touring the grounds our guide brought us to a exhibit of the bells of the Dormition cathedral. This region of Russia had been known for the manufacturing of bells. Currently this old craft of bell casting is being revived, with no two bells exactly alike.
Our next destination would be at the Church of Elijah the Prophet. In order to get to the church we needed to pass by an assembly of military personnel. There seemed to be some kind of procession or drill in progress. We took a few pictures but our tour guide didn’t want us to linger and hurried us through.
At the Church of Elijah the Prophet, like many ornamental churches in Russia, there was a fee to take photos. The cost was only around 100 rubles but well worth the expense. Admittedly I had cheated prior, sneaking a few pics without paying. But now I was happily clicking away guilt free at the amazing array of frescoes.
Today our boat docked at the small town of Goritsy. The weather was cold and windy with a sideways rain that made you want to stay cuddled in your cabin. But we had signed up for the walking tour, so we braved the elements.
The villages main attraction is the Goritsy Monastery that we could see in the distance.
Our first stop on our walk was a small market to get dry since everyones clothes were now wet. After gathering our groups stragglers we left for a villagers home to see their garden. Yes this was a garden that grew outside. Very exciting. Our group didn’t want to get the villagers home muddy so we didn’t go inside. My sister in law however, in need of a restroom, used her Google translate app to use the homes facilities. She spoke of how well the app worked and how gracious the villagers were.
Allan’s mom was getting tired so he escorted her back to the ship and I decided to ditch the group and explore on my own. I took photos of the village houses as well as a simple war memorial, which looked like Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. After getting my fill of this quaint town I headed back to the ship…. forgetting to visit the Goritsy Monastery…….